A tug-boat on the North side of the Thames moored at Westminster pier opposite the London Eye may be as spiritually distant from Kessock Bridge in Inverness as it is from Dubai or Sibiu in Romania. Yet over the last two weeks, all four locations have offered prime views of their respective skies being lit up by a shared experience which has heralded in the New Year with a bang. All bar one of these took place either on December 31st or else on the first bong of midnight on January 1st. Inverness, however, gets to party twice, as it takes advantage of the discrepancies between the Julian and Gregorian calendar to see out 2007’s Highland Year Of Culture with Highland Lights, a ferociously independent spectacle which has typified the year’s rolling programme.
Because, when the last rocket shoots into the heavens tonight, it will be an artistic statement that shows off the full potential of firework displays to be something equally transcendent. Created and produced by Groupe F, the Marseille based pyrotechnic alchemists whose previous work has included the opening ceremony for 2004’s Olympic Games in Athens, 1999’s Rugby World Cup in Cardiff and two tours with spectral Icelandic singer Bjork, Highland Lights will be a whole lot more than a few Rockets launched from milk bottles causing an affray.
From the dawn of Highland 2007 a year ago today, much of the year has been about a community reclaiming a little bit of itself. The symbolism of reviving the Julian calendar to bookend the year is itself a political act. This dates back to 1582, when Pope Gregory Xlll amended the calendar in an attempt to check the slow backward movement of the seasons. Immediately adopted in Catholic countries and much slower in Protestant ones, Britain didn’t make the change until 1751, by which time there was a discrepancy of eleven days, though as 1800 wasn’t a leap year, there was an actual difference of twelve days. Even so, with many stubbornly clamouring after their lost days, Highlanders kept their festivals to the Julian calendar well into the late nineteenth century, and, as with the mainstream revival of the Beltane fire festival since the late 1980s, a patina of such indigenous tradition remains.
What more perfect backdrop of tradition married to progress could there be, then, for Groupe F’s elemental spectacles of fire and water which take hold of Inverness tonight. Founded in the early 1990s by Christophe Berthonneau and a coterie of artists, designers, technicians and other fellow travellers, Groupe F are regarded by many as the world’s best at what they do. Utilising a none-linear form which is more instinctive than intellectual, however, exactly what it is they are doing isn’t easy to explain. Berthonneau, though, is both passionate and pragmatic on his subject.
“I see it as a public service of love,” he says a couple of hours before he lights the blue touch paper on a form of revelry dating back thousands of years. “A public service of pleasure. It’s free, everyone can come, and it’s impossible to hide. People are waiting, and it’s very abstract what they are waiting for. Everyone has their own individual thing they are waiting for. We are not going to change anything. We are just like the people who bring the food, bringing a choreography of life for all the people. It’s a piece of dance, with everyone in the dark looking for the light. The seasons are changing, and this is a little theatre of hope. The light is coming back, and this is a celebration of that light.”
Berthonneau’s discourse makes Highland Lights sound a lot more significant than merely making a big bang.
“Everyone is asking me how many Rockets and how many this or that,” he says. “But we try not to necessarily display the biggest or the loudest, because if you try to display energy, it’s more complex than that. We’re using the more precious kind of materials, and are dealing with something very delicate and very fragile. Fireworks are poetry from a long time ago. Fireworks are revealing something, just for that little space of time, and the emotion of the little child coming to this, if they take one image away to remember, I will be happy.”
The results of such care, as evangelised by Berthonneau and his team and witnessed in pretty much every major cultural centre in Europe and beyond over the last two decades, is a seemingly unholy alliance of panoramic-scale civic pride married to the sort of hippy-punk art fashioned on streets well outside the mainstream, sired some time in the 1960s and subsequently rebranded via Rave culture and New Circus.
Tonight’s Inverness spectacular will be designed and put together by Groupe F’s other human dynamo, Nicolas Mousques. Mousques was also responsible for Groupe F’s Dubai New Year show. Like Barthonneau, Mousques speaks with excited fervour of the possibilities for Inverness, both tonight and, alive with New Year optimism, everything that follows.
“We must think about the enjoyment of the people,” says Mousques. “The structure and the rhythm of the piece will be different. We’ve worked many times in Scotland now, and we are aware of the different environments and the different climates. What we will be doing on the bridge is about change, and what we reveal of the space, and what people can discover from that”
Berthonneau puts it more colourfully when he says that “We are like Lucifer,” referring to the fallen angel whose name in Latin translates as ‘bearer of light.’
What, then, can Inverness expect from Groupe F tonight? If their contribution to London’s New Year is anything to go by, it will be a triumph. Working with what looks like the biggest Catherine Wheel in the world, this was Groupe F’s fourth New Year in London. With what looks like the entire city’s population in attendance several hours before midnight, the 1980s party classics that have been pumping out of the PA give way to some twinkly-eyed techno with ten minutes to spare. With the London Eye already shining like a classy fun fair ride, a little tug-boat parades down the Thames, puffing increasingly larger flame-clouds into the night sky as if juggling with torches in accompaniment.
Come the countdown to midnight, the music stops, and with Big Ben’s first bong, the sky bursts open with a wave of choreographed colour in high-speed motion. The display which follows betrays Berthonneau’s sense of theatre impeccably. With fireworks being launched from two boats either side of the Eye as well as a central platform, its all about symmetry, rhythm and pace. At times the clouds of smoke left behind render the Eye invisible, until, after a pause, its own artificial beams glare out once more.
All Berthonneau’s impassioned words about poetry, philosophy and the magic of renewal make perfect sense after this, which, beyond metaphysics and other abstract notions, clocks in at around ten minutes flat.
There will, however, be differences between the two events. While there will be no skimping on the amount of fireworks used, whereas with the London show Berthonneau chose for his pyrotechnic choreography to stand alone without musical accompaniment, Mousques has tonight opted for the reverse. Divided up into five parts, each with a separate soundtrack that takes in home-grown fare from The Peatbog Faeries to Franz Ferdinand, Highland Lights will look similarly outwards, all the time staying in tune with a sense of place and the grandeur of its immediate landscape.
“We’re thinking about the power of the Scottish land,” says Mousques. “Because the place around us is so big, a free firework show will contain a lot of emotion, and that emotion is contained over a very short period of time.”
For Berthonneau, the real power of that emotion can not only transform a community in a big way, but in smaller, more intimate expressions as well.
“Someone came up to me,” Berthonneau recalls, “and said, ‘Christophe, when you did the fireworks to open the Millennium Bridge, I met my wife. She was beside me, and during the show she took my hand, and we have been together ever since.’ That is what matters,” twinkles Berthonneau. “This is what makes the poetry accessible to everyone. We are part of the life story of everyone and we are marking the time, and hopefully brings joy.”
Highland Lights, Inverness, tonight. Procession begins at Huntly Street near the Ness Bridge at approximately 7pm. Fireworks at 8.30pm at Kessock Bridge. Official viewing area on Longman Drive. www.highland2007.com/highland-lights.html
Highland 2007 Highlights
Kick-started into life after Inverness lost out to Liverpool on its bid to be European Capital of Culture 2008, Highland 2007 similarly became something of a political football. There have, however, been some memorable events.
Half Life – NVA’s collabotation with the National Theatre Of Scotland filled scattered sites around Kilmartin Glen with a series of environmental installations. A new play performed in the Glen itself was less succesful.
Highland Quest – A year-long competition to find a musical with a Highlanf theme culminated in The Sundowe, a new work by John Kielty and his two brothers, reoping Eden Court Theatre after a multi-million pound renovation.
Drama Na h-Alba – A major theatre festival featuring companies from the Highlands and beyond, including a version of The Puppet Lab’s The Big Shop, Theatre Henbrides, Fish and Game and more. Audiences may not have been huge over such a large programme, though the festuval set the foundations for future activity.
The Outsider Festival – Located in Rothiemurcos near Aviemore, this new open air music festival may not have had the weather, but it did bring the likes of Crowded House, KT Tunstal and King Creosote to a field near you.
Sir Elton John – As if that wasn’t enough, the real Queen of England and his band descended on Tulloch Stadium for a major summer show.
The Herald, January 12th 2008